Christians in India Plan to Save Shrine

A plan to save a chapel to St. Antony in India, which was severely damaged by religious extremists, has received a boost from an international Catholic charity.

The chapel of St. Anthony, on the island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu state, was attacked on several occasions between June and August, 2008, at about the same time as anti-Christian violence in Orissa state left more than 80 dead.

Responding to an urgent request for help, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, has promised to provide $29,000 towards the cost of a new shrine.

Parish priest, Fr. Michael Raj told ACN that, “Last year in 2008, from June to August, the previous chapel was vigorously attacked and heavily damaged twice by unidentified anti-social and religious elements.”

Fr. Raj added, “This is repeatedly happening here and there are intruders who break the holy cross… They plan to remove the Christian symbols from this site.”

The new chapel will have the added protection of a wall around the compound, and the local Church also intends to erect a house for visiting pilgrims. Organizers also plan to extend the hall at the shrine.

The priest believes “fanatic religious groups” were behind the attacks on the shrine of St. Anthony.

He added, “However, our faith is stronger, and we are sure that the God in whom we believe, amidst all these struggles, will save our faith and our place of worship – which is the shrine of St. Anthony.”

Despite suspicions that damage to the shrine was religiously motivated, the priest reported that most members of other faiths on the island support the campaign to save the chapel.

Fr. Raj added: “I should mention that there are also a reasonable number of Hindus and Muslims who are coming to this site as pilgrims and visitors.”

There has been a shrine to St. Anthony on the island of Rameswaram since missionaries first came to the easterly island of India’s Tamil Nadu state in the 19th century.

The original chapel was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964 and a replacement was severely damaged by 2004’s tsunami.

As St. Anthony is revered as patron saint of mariners and fishermen, the shrine attracts many visitors on an island where most families depend on the sea for their livelihood – and attacks on the shrine have not deterred devotees from continuing to visit.

Fr. Raj added: “Because of the long history and age-old devotion of the fishermen to St. Anthony’s [shrine]…, the number of pilgrims visiting and praying is constantly increasing day by day.”

Desecration of the chapel coincided with the extremist attacks on Christians in Kandhamal district, Orissa, in eastern India, where more than 30,000 people fled their homes as a result of attacks from August to September in 2008.

The whole shrine project will cost $61,500, and local people have already raised more than $16,200 towards the total – despite being from the poorer section of society.

Fr. Raj said, “Though our people are at the bottom of the society in all the spheres they are known for Faith and Commitment towards, and for, the Holy Mother Church”

Despite the challenges the Church has faced in Rameswaram, Fr. Raj stressed the commitment of local Christians to their faith.

He added, “I thank God for all that He is doing for me in serving Him and practicing our faith in this land where we are having a time of persecution and a test in saving our faith and places of worship.”

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